By Tech. Sgt. Ryan Campbell
158th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Months, and even years, of preparation have now culminated to one day, one event. Rigging and spotlights have been carefully hung over the ceiling of the hangar, while below the aircraft sits perfectly illuminated.
Endless work by Airmen with the 158th Fighter Wing has paid off in bringing two new fighter jets to the base in a historic first. Now, their efforts are being presented to countless visitors, including leadership from across the National Guard, with the eyes of the world upon them.
With attendees awaiting in the hangar, and the lights dimmed, the men and women of the wing who have made the event possible enter to a standing ovation.
On Oct. 19, 2019, the 158th Fighter Wing officially welcomed the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter into the wing after having received their first two aircraft in September. Eighteen more jets will arrive over the next several months as the wing continues to develop their skills in flying and maintaining the Air Force’s latest fifth-generation fighter.
“Of all the people we recognize today, our leaders, our supporters, our community stake holders, by far the most significant attendees today are our Airmen,” said Army Brig. Gen. Gregory Knight, the adjutant general of Vermont. “Your work ethic, your pride in service, your consistent excellence and dedication to our nation made today possible.”
The work that the 158th put in came as a result of 33 years of flying the F-16 Fighting Falcon which came to an end in Vermont, as the wing was chosen to be the first Air National Guard unit to receive the F-35. It is also only the second operational F-35 wing in the entire Air Force.
“What a beautiful day in Vermont for so many different reasons,” said the Honorable Phil Scott, governor of Vermont. “When I think about the Vermont National Guard…the common denominator is the quality of the people and the sense of service to country before self. This in itself makes the Guard one of Vermont’s most valuable assets.”
Activated on May 24, 1946, the wing’s 134th Fighter Squadron was organized at what is now known as the Burlington International Airport, where it has been based ever since. The fifth Air National Guard unit to be formed, the Airmen of the squadron carry on a long lineage with their famed “Yellow Scorpions” emblem painted on the side of each F-35 in an area specifically for their squadron emblem.
“I’m as proud to stand among you today as I was that day in December [of 2013] when the Air Force first announced the Vermont Air National Guard had been selected as the first Air National Guard unit in the country to fly the F-35,” said Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy. “I believe in you, I believe that you are the best.”
In Vermont, the 158th was activated for the Korean War, deployed to Saudi Arabia in support of Operation Southern Watch, and deployed three times in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. It was their response to 9/11, however, that stands out for many Vermonters as a key part of Green Mountain Boy history.
“You always strive to improve, but you also have abilities that shine throughout the country, the ability to make impossible deployments happen,” said Leahy. “Remember how fast you deployed over New York City after 9/11…You will fly this new aircraft with excellence, you will lead with excellence, you will reflect Vermont values. You make our state proud, you make the United States of America proud. I thank you.”
Converting to the F-35 affected the entire wing with changes needing to be made at all levels. While pilots needed to learn to fly a new aircraft and maintainers needed to learn new procedures, everyone from the fire department to security forces also needed to adapt as the base facilities and taxiways were overhauled to accept the new aircraft.
According to Greg Ulmer, the vice president and general manager of the Lockheed Martin Aeronautics F-35 program, the receipt of the F-35s at the 158th is the start of an initiative that will see 300 F-35s based at more than 15 Air National Guard units.
“This state has contributed long and often, and punches well above its weight in terms of its contributions to national defense and has since the beginning of our nation’s history,” said Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, chief of the National Guard Bureau. “It’s only proper and appropriate that this, the Vermont National Guard and the 158th Fighter Wing, be the first recipient of the F-35 in the National Guard.”
Lengyel attributed the 158th’s success to always breaking the stereotype that the National Guard is not as ready for war as its active duty counterparts. He cited a 2016-2017 deployment in Support of Operation Inherent Resolve in which the wing received what he called “no notice”, deploying in an extraordinarily short amount of time and flying combat missions over Iraq within hours of arriving in country, setting an Air Force record.
“It took a vision to see this. It took persistence, and it took a track record of sustained excellent performance,” said Lengyel.
“It’s a new chapter in this history of excellence,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. Scott Rice, director of the Air National Guard.
As the country goes into 2020, the Airmen of the 158th will continue the conversion to the F-35 as they receive aircraft fresh from the factory, until the wing has its full complement of twenty. It is a future that they are all excited to welcome.
“By far [this is] the proudest moment in my 31-year career here as a Green Mountain Boy,” said Air Force Col. David Smith, commander of the 158th Fighter Wing. “There’s a question that I frequently get asked and it goes something like this, ‘how is it that such a small state like Vermont was chosen as the first F-35 unit in the Air National Guard?’”
Smith answered this by stating, “It’s really quite simple, it’s because of our people.
“To the Airmen of the 158th Fighter Wing, congratulations and well done,” said Smith. “No one knows what the future will hold, but we will be ready.”